French Bread made at home

When you take on your allotment, your questions revolve around how to grow food. You dig, you weed, you dig, you weed, you plant, you dig, you weed, you harvest and then you throw most of your “harvest” on the compost heap. The fact is, until you embrace a no dig, low maintenance system, this cycle will probably repeat until one day the question is “why am I even bothering with this?”.

Once the penny has dropped and you have cleared your allotment ready to lay down deep beds of shop bought compost, you have taken the first step towards a new question “how am I going to eat all this food?”. A GOOD shop bought compost (like Clover for example) will increase yields ten fold. Netting and spraying with horticultural soap solutions will keep bugs away so that your harvest is edible. Growing potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables in polysacks on the surface of your allotment will keep slugs and pests to a minimum and edible food to a maximum.

Take my chickens for example. I have six at the moment. They have just started laying and I have way too many eggs, so I need to be knowledgeable. I need to research “egg recipes” on the internet. You can make ouefs en cocotte as snacks, scrambled eggs in the microwave take seconds, eggs are an ingredient in home made pasta, eggs are needed in cakes. Do you like egg fried rice? What we’re talking about here is the ability to incorporate eggs into your everyday cooking and it will be the same for your first harvest of vegetables under a no dig system.

While researching cooking, I have discovered an interesting fact. In the sixties and seventies (and obviously before that too), convenience food was practically non-existent. Buy some cook books written before the eighties and you are into a world of French provincial cooking making use of eggs, butter, herbs, and vegetables. I was asked a while ago “why bother making your own pizza?” But once you have cracked the recipe the question really is, “why bother buying soggy tasteless pizza from the shop or takeaway?” There is a world of difference between fresh, homemade pizza and shop bought. The same is applicable to pasta. Making your own can be a pain, but the difference is striking. Semolina, Strong bread flour and eggs turns into a magical thing when run through your pasta machine. Boiled for four minutes and covered with your special homemade tomato sauce, there is nothing quite as wonderful. Homemade pasta can be frozen too, as can your tomato sauce.

The old chefs and cook books promote vegetables in a big way. Take “au gratin” for example. Asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, calabrese, cabbage, kale and even potatoes turn into something very special once cooked “au gratin”. A steak cooked on the barbecue, asparagus au gratin and boiled new potatoes with a knob of butter has to be better than soggy burger and chips from the local takeaway. But the takeaway is ever present today. It is convenient. We can afford it. Can’t we?

Once upon a time when people laboured on their own land, meat was a rarity. Soups and home baked bread was the staple. Eggs were consumed daily. Meat was a treat. Many today moan about their weight and/or their health, while shoveling large quantities of empty calories into their mouths. Bread? Bread was the staff of life, but that bread was wholemeal and very nutritious. Today’s “refined” bread has had the goodness stripped out and leaves the consumer wanting. Here’s a tip, buy a bread machine. I got one for £10 at the charity shop. Wholemeal bread doesn’t rise well and can be a disappointment, but, if you substitute one third strong white bread flour for one third of the wholemeal, you’ll find that you bread does rise and it is a lot more nutritious than white only. You can also mix your pasta dough in it too.

People working their own land needed nutrition. They got it from fresh salad leaves, wholemeal bread, soups and stews. They ate a lot of fresh vegetables. Even today, the “Mediterranean diet” is hailed as one of the best for a long life. Once you have cracked the art of growing your own food AND have learned to cook like your granny did, you will start to feel the benefits in your weight and your health. But convenience food will be so tempting. Taking on an allotment means turning away from convenience. Your allotment will produce huge amounts of vegetables that must be eaten to justify your hard work and that means embracing cooking. You are going to need to love cooking your own meals and the more you learn, the more you will enjoy your new found skills.

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allotment in winter

My allotment is 285 square metres and I have a chicken run, a greenhouse, a shed and a cloche/small chicken run. The system I use to grow food is a no dig system whereby I lay compost onto strimmed soil to make beds. These beds are around 4 yards long by around fifteen to eighteen inches wide. I can also make a bed up from six growing sacks placed on the surface of the soil. I estimate I have 24 beds to plan for the coming season.

It is a very good idea to choose food that you will actually cook and eat as opposed to food that sounds nice or appeals to your sense of the exotic. For example, last season, I grew scorzonera (black salsify) which is a black root vegetable described as tasting like asparagus. I found that the scorzonera I grew was tasteless and hard to prepare. I won’t be growing it again. Likewise, sweetcorn. When space is at a premium, growing something that you eat every now and again isn’t wise. At harvest time, I was left with a large glut of corn cobs most of which were fed to the chickens.

So, I have devised the following plan for the 2019 season based largely on food I actually ate in 2018…

Onions (sets, including shallots) – 3 rows
Carrots (seeds planted into sacks. Chantenay and early Nantes) – 2 rows
Cabbage (spring and autumn) – 2 rows
Kale (Nero di Toscana) – 1 row
Calabrese – 3 rows
Potatoes (early, new types planted in sacks) – 3 rows
Courgette – 1 row
Beans (bush type) – 4 rows
Squash (Crown Prince) – 1 row
Peas (Kelvedon Wonder self supporting and mange tout type) – 3 rows
Lettuce (Little Gem) – 1 row

In addition, I’ll grow salad leaves, peppers and strawberries in the greenhouse and I’m hoping to clear a space for my polytunnel so that I can grow a few tomatoes and maybe cucumbers.

I’ve already planted two rows of onions, one row of potatoes, two rows of peas and a row of carrots.

no dig onions planted into compost

No Dig, planting onions into compost

 

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no dig allotment in summer

A lot of people take over an allotment with high hopes only to give up a few years, or even a few months later. The reasons vary, but, primarily most people are time poor and spend way too much time digging and way too little time growing food.

I’ve owned an allotment for over ten years now and it’s only recently that I have managed to work out a system that allows me to grow the maximum amount of food with the least amount of effort. One thing I would say before starting out on this journey is “if you don’t know how to cook, please learn as soon as possible”. Huge amounts of food are grown on UK allotments only to be dumped in the compost or fed to grateful chickens. Learning to cook is the best way to combat this waste, and French provincial is definitely the way to go, as the French seem to have a way of cooking almost anything to make delicious meals. Cabbage au gratin with bacon and onions springs to mind. Glazed carrots with fresh herbs, white sauces to raise the profile of even the most bland vegetable on the plot.

In short, it is very important to eat all (or as much as you can) you grow.

So, to point one. Adopt a no dig system.

I spent years digging the allotment over. I added pelleted chicken manure, horse manure, pig manure, compost and anything else I could find to improve the fertility. But, the results were very hit and miss and very tiring to boot. I even did my knee in and couldn’t walk for a week! Hour after hour spent weeding and digging, digging and weeding. Is it any wonder people give up on their allotments?

Compost costs money, but, so does food and good food costs more than bland food. Last year, I decided to buy in compost from the local supplier. I chose to use the “Clover” brand because it works, every time, and is used by many professional nurseries throughout the UK. I probably spent the best part of £100 on compost and my allotment costs just over £50 a year to rent. You need to buy seeds too and that can cost another £50, but £200 for a LOT of GREAT (organic) food is worth every penny.

You will need some tools too. The tool I use most in the no dig system is a strimmer. I use the strimmer to get rid of weeds off the surface of the soil. It’s a lot faster than weeding by hand and a decent strimmer can be picked up for £50 or less. If your allotment is overgrown when you take it over, strim it hard to get down to the soil level. Remove the debris and lay out compost on the ground to form beds. You’ll need enough space between the beds to strim the weeds away as they emerge over the season. Two to three inches of compost is enough to get things going…

no dig onions planted into compost

No Dig, planting onions into compost

The sooner you get planting, the sooner you get connected with your land and a no dig method is the fastest way to get your allotment going. By laying two to three inches of compost on the surface to form beds, you can plant, onions, peas, beans, sweetcorn, cabbage, kale, calabrese, spinach, courgette, squash, lettuce, turnips, leeks and more. You can even lay down cardboard over the weeds and spread your compost on that if you don’t want to spend time strimming.

Plant into grow bags on the surface of the soil.

I tried planting potatoes and carrots into the beds of compost, but it didn’t work for me. Too much slug damage, carrot fly, birds and bugs. So, I started to plant into grow bags on the surface. you can grow carrots, parsnips, potatoes and even tomatoes this way. Buy the right bags on Ebay and fill with compost. It’s easy. Please read my article on growing potatoes here

Sowing carrots into sacks

No dig carrots sown into sacks on the surface of the soil

For protection from damage, net your delicious vegetables.

Seeing vegetables you have grown from seed, decimated by caterpillars, birds, and slugs can really put a strain on your relationship with your allotment.  Cabbages, kale, calabrese, lettuce, spinach etc. are all susceptible, so get some good netting, some plastic piping and some canes and get building protective nets for the vegetables at risk. I find scaffolding netting works well as the weave is very fine. Plastic piping forms hoops and canes support the structure tied with garden wire or string. Weigh the structure down with bricks or soil to prevent wind damage.

netting protection for vegetables

Do it yourself netting

Get some chickens.

Chickens need attention and bind you to your allotment like no vegetable can. You can buy point of lay from local suppliers or hatch them yourself from fertilised eggs as I describe in this article. Fresh eggs can be used to make omelettes, cakes, pasta, fried rice, pancakes and lots, lots more. Three chickens or more and you’ll have a great flock. Protect them from foxes by building a chicken wire run and provide them with a nesting box, a perch, feeder and waterer. To keep maintenance low, make your nesting box roll the eggs away for storage (and cleanliness), get a treadle feeder and a large waterer (mine is 5 gallons). My treadle feeder keeps the rats out and holds 10kg of layers pellets. I have been on holiday for a week and the chickens have been fine on my return.

Get a greenhouse or a polytunnel (or both!)

To keep costs down, you can grow all your vegetables from seed and of course these can be propagated on the windowsill at home, but nothing beats sitting in your own greenhouse sowing seeds for the coming season. Buy a secondhand one if you can find a decent one. Maybe you can get one off one of the allotment holders who is packing in. Polytunnel’s can be had for around £50 on Ebay, but do ensure it is lashed down to prevent wind damage. Last season my new polytunnel blew away to the other side of the allotment site. I should have used storm lashings of course.

Grow salad in your greenhouse (or polytunnel).

Cut and come again salads can grow as quickly as twenty one days and they are a great way to get something on your plate as fast as possible. In fact, if you have chickens and grow your own salad leaves, you can have an egg mayonnaise starter with a few meals this week. I wrote an article a couple of years about growing salad leaves in the greenhouse, you can find it here.

So, there are a few tips for a low maintenance allotment. No dig, is easy but you’ll need to buy a few bags of compost. One of the things I have learned over the years is that the best growers use the most compost. One of the best allotments on our site uses a pallet of compost each season and the owner is always in the running for best allotment.

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sowing seeds on the allotment

The middle of February is starting to feel like Spring so I’m getting things going, BUT, all my work could be undone if we have a harsh March with snow and heavy frost. If you feel it best to wait till the clocks go forward that’s OK. But I feel it’s worth taking a chance now, so, here goes.

Last season, around March 2018, I planted potatoes in 70 litre sacks. Mainly early potatoes like Rocket & Charlotte. I found that these are still edible after digging a few out earlier this month (February 2019). All in all a very successful result and I can recommend growing your spuds in sacks above ground using compost.

digging out potatoes grown in sacks

End of Season Potatoes on the Allotment

So, after rooting the potatoes out I now have quite a lot of usable compost and I’ve started off some onions and peas by making beds from around 100 litres of used compost and planting into it. The compost still has a reasonable level of nutrients, but this can be supplemented with a liquid feed made from urea, water and comfrey which I keep mixed in a 200 litre water butt on the site.

As with all my no dig beds, I spread the compost over the ground making a bed around fifteen to eighteen inches wide and having a depth of two to three inches. Pat down to firm with the back of a spade and plant into the bed. My beds are around four yards long and I can plant roughly a hundred onion sets into each bed. I get about forty peas into the same size beds and I’m using Kelvedon Wonder as they don’t grow too tall and can be supported with short canes and string around the perimeter.

no dig onions planted into compost

No Dig, planting onions into compost

I’ve also used the spent compost from the potatoes to start off my carrot seeds (Early Nantes). I first mixed the compost with building sand at a ratio of one third sand to two thirds compost. I then placed the compost into the 70 litre sacks, filling to a suitable depth for the carrots (about six to eight inches should suffice). Then I sprinkled carrot seed on the top (sparingly), covered with some more compost and watered in. Last year, I tried sowing carrot seeds into the beds as described above, but they were too crowded and suffered from carrot fly and slug damage. I think sowing into the growing bags should work this season, but that remains to be seen.

Sowing carrots into sacks

No dig carrots sown into sacks on the surface of the soil

Now is a good time to start off some seedlings in the greenhouse. I’ve just started peppers, chilli’s, kale, cabbage, leeks and bedding plants too (Marigold’s and Petunia). I mostly sow in cells which will be planted on, into “six packs” or small pots. I’ll need at least 144 bedding plants for my two “living walls” I have in the back yard. I’ll make sure I take a few photo’s when I start those off in late May or Early June.

sowing seeds on the allotment

sowing seeds on the allotment in February

I’ve also decided to grow a few strawberry plants in the greenhouse too. I usually grow them outside, but they suffer from slug damage and the birds like to feed on them. I dug up a few of the newer plants from the allotment and planted them in Clover compost in medium pots. I’ll keep them fed with a nitrogen feed until the fruits start to form when they’ll need phosphorous for good growth. Use a good tomato feed to get large juicy strawberries.

greenhouse strawberry plants

Strawberry Plants growing in the greenhouse

 

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Hot Composting for Permaculture

I recently bought a rotovator with the intention of making my life easier when it came to digging fertiliser into my allotment. Since Autumn, I’ve dug the allotment over and tilled by hand with a hoe. My allotment looks great at the moment but I now have some serious aches and pains. Being a 56 year old arthritic (mild but painful), I needed to think of another way to get the job done, hence the rotovator. Continue reading